WASHINGTON — Despite the rise of the #MeToo movement, most of the nation’s largest public universities are less than transparent about how they handle sexual assault cases on campus.
A six-month-long investigation by Capital News Service found that among the 25 largest public universities, very few were willing to make public data about sexual assault reports, how many investigations they conducted annually and how many cases resulted in disciplinary actions or convictions.
In fact, among the 25 schools, 13 provided no information. Of those 13, eight did not answer repeated calls, five more failed to respond through their communications departments, two declined to answer any questions and one failed to answer a public records request it said it required.
CNS made more than 70 telephone calls and sent numerous emails to all 25 schools.
Federal law requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal student aid programs to file annual reports listing statistics for sexually based crimes. But the reports do not detail how the schools pursue and resolve such cases.
While the #MeToo movement that grew out of high-profile scandals involving celebrities has heightened public awareness of sexual assault and sexual harassment, institutions of higher learning appear to have more of their own learning to do, critics said.
“There’s a lot of incompetence, there’s a lot of ignorance, and there’s a lot of deliberate indifference,” Elizabeth Tang, a lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for justice for women and girls, told Capital News Service in an interview.
CNS asked each of the 25 largest public universities, selected based on the 2019 ranking by U.S. News & World Report, to supply data on the number of sexual assault investigators they employed, the average time to investigate a complaint, the number of reports of assault received, the total number of claims investigated and the number of convictions that resulted from prosecution.
Of the universities that did respond, CNS found:
The University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the University of California-Davis and the University of California-Berkeley stood out for self-reporting sexual assault data, creating easy-to-access brochures and infographics categorizing assault claims, reporting specific numbers and making information readily accessible to the public.
The number of investigators at each Title IX office varies from school to school.
For example, Texas A&M University-College Station, with 53,065 students, has four investigators, while the University of California-Irvine, with 29,307 students, has twice as many investigators.
Most schools did not make public how many sexual assault claims are investigated and how many result in disciplinary action or criminal prosecution.
Investigation times, which under proposed federal regulations are not quantified, also vary from school to school. None of the schools provided specific numbers or data about their average investigation times.
“The length of time for an investigation varies depending on specific circumstances, levels of participation, amounts of evidence and the number of witnesses for each case,” Shilpa Bakre, spokeswoman at the University of Texas-Austin, said in an email.
Federal guidelines put in place by the Obama administration recommended that investigations be completed within 60 days. However, current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rescinded the Obama-era recommendations.
The University of Maryland, College Park had promised a 30-day investigation period and a 30-day sentencing period, according to survivors.
However, according to survivors, schools take much longer than their promised times.
Survivors who want to get results need to “keep making a fuss, be annoying,” said Faith Ferber, a former student at American University and a student organizer for Know Your IX. “You pay tuition to go to that school, do not stop demanding accountability and transparency and don’t fall for the … PR lines that they take sexual violence very seriously and are committed to being transparent. We know that’s not true, otherwise, this information (on investigation and outcome statistics) would be (readily available).”
McLain Rich, the founder of Preventing Sexual Assault and a sexual assault survivor from the University of Maryland, got her assailant expelled.
She said it took a lot of effort and calls to the office to make her voice heard.
“I think a big part of it must have also been that I was creating a buzz and a stir through my activism,” Rich said.
Although she got the result that she wanted, Rich said she was very disappointed by how long it took the Title IX office to investigate her claim and make a determination.
“It was an eight-month-long investigation where I had to worry about seeing him on campus,” Rich said. “I was not sleeping because I was worried that he would retaliate. It was a very paranoid time of my life.”
Federal law requires some disclosure
Under a 1990 federal law called the Clery Act, universities are mandated to disclose the number of certain types of crimes that are reported each year to local police or the school. This includes the number of incidents of sexual assault (including rape), domestic violence, dating violence and stalking that are reported to local police or to school officials, including, but not limited to, school police, security guards, deans, coaches, club advisers and Title IX officials.
But according to an analysis done by The American Association of University Women, 89% of campuses claimed in their Clery Act reports for 2016 that they received no reports of rape; that percentage was identical in 2015 and at 91 percent in 2014. That contrasts with an Association of American Universities Campus Climate survey study that found more than 1 in 5 women, nearly 1 in 18 men and nearly 1 in 4 transgender and gender-nonconforming students are sexually assaulted in college.
The low number of reports can be attributed to student reluctance to report for personal reasons, or it could mean universities are in violation of the Clery Act by underreporting the incidence of sexually violent crimes, critics say.
Many universities are unwilling to publicize sexual assault information for fear it will appear their campuses are dangerous, according to critics.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the federal government prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program. Schools are required to take steps to address sex discrimination, including sexual harassment or assault. This includes conducting investigations when claims are filed.
But the Clery Act does not require universities to divulge statistics regarding how they respond to sexual assault claims and offers few guidelines, advocates for more open records say.
A bipartisan bill introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, proposed tougher reporting requirements for campus sexual assault cases and penalties for schools that failed to comply. The measure was not voted on in the Republican-controlled House. Speier reintroduced the measure in June.
Speier’s Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) on Campus Sexual Violence Act, a bipartisan bill with 50 co-sponsors, aims to strengthen prevention efforts and to hold perpetrators and schools more accountable for sexual violence on campus.
Morgan Dewey, spokeswoman for the organization that helped shape the bill, End Rape on Campus, explained that the HALT Act would give the Department of Education authority to fine schools as much as $100,000 for violating the Clery Act by failing to report crime statistics, including data on sexual violence crimes. The bill would also make public the names of colleges and universities under investigation for violating the Clery Act and Title IX.
Speier’s measure also would create a federal sexual violence task force to make recommendations to Congress.
“Part of the problem with the whole Title IX response is that universities weren’t given a lot of guidance early on how to really be helpful in crafting a response,” said Josh Bronson, former lead investigator of the University of Maryland’s Title IX Office. “What you end up having are campuses that were maybe trying to do the right thing but really didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing, because they were scared of getting in trouble.”
The five schools that provided online information about campus sexual violence contrasted sharply with other institutions that declined to discuss the issue.
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, declined to divulge any information. When asked by CNS if the staff was not allowed to release the data or simply didn’t have it, Judy Ryan, the university-wide Title IX coordinator, said, “I’m not going to answer either of those questions.”
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